BLUEWATER CLOWNS: Paintings by Sean Landers

Painting by Sean Landers

Is it fine art? Or just some cartoons? That’s what I’ve been wondering about this “Around the World Alone” exhibit by artist Sean Landers currently on display at the Friedrich Petzel Gallery at 537 West 22nd Street in Manhattan. When I first came across these paintings, I was amused by them. But the more I look at and think about them, the more they seem an insult to ocean sailors everywhere.

I suppose they wouldn’t seem insulting if Landers himself didn’t seem to think they were anything more than cute cartoons. But on studying the gobbledy-gook statement about the exhibit on the Petzel website, I had to conclude Landers probably believes these images say something incredibly important and meaningful about life and bluewater sailing.

You should obviously draw your own conclusions. Here’s the relevant bit of the statement:

The paintings included in Around the World Alone depict the solo-circumnavigating sailor-clown ranging in age from young boy to old man. Punctuated by contemplative scenes, the hero can be seen progressing in age as he battles the ferocious seas and weathers storms in his seaworthy boat S.V. Monos. In Around the World Alone (Coxswain Moon), the protagonist steers his boat with resolve through the night’s rough waters. Once a pathos-riddled creature, the clown has grown and matured into one who has repeatedly crossed boundless oceans and successfully mastered unpredictable waters. The clown is no longer swallowed by his hubris and folly, but has learned and is triumphing over the obstacles put forth to him along the course of life.

The various source material from which Landers drew to prepare and execute the work speaks to the ability of Landers to find inspiration in the seemingly disparate. Landers has a long-term fascination with the Golden Globe race of 1968, the first, solo, non-stop round-the-world yacht race. Of the nine men who embarked from England on this year-long race, the frontrunner decided to turn around at the last moment and continue on (Bernard Moitessier), one contestant threw himself into the ocean (Donald Crowhurst), and only one man completed the race (Robin Knox-Johnston). This race has informed his work for almost two decades, from a solo exhibition in 1995 which included drawings of Landers’s imagined solo-circumnavigation routes, to a text painting narrating a solo sail gone awry, Sea[sic] (1995), to Alone (1996), to the present body of work. It is hard not to realize that Landers at any one time could be any of these contestants. Other sources of inspiration include the life and career of William Golding, the continuously transforming boat in Homer’s Odyssey, Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Landers’s own past bodies of work.

My immediate reaction on reading this was: You have got to be kidding. But then I found this after noodling around online for a bit:

Art by Sean Landers

Here are a few more paintings from the exhibit:

Painting by Sean Landers
Boy Skipper-Dawn (2011), Sean Landers
Painting by Sean Landers
Lord of the Sea (2011), Sean Landers
Painting by Sean Landers
Arctic Endurance (2011), Sean Landers

Of course, there’s no reason why cute cartoons can’t also be art. It seems Rule Number One in the art world these days is that absolutely anything can be art. And I personally believe this is true. Whether something is art, or not, depends entirely on how you look at it, not on what it is.

But is this fine art??? Is it any good? For me, the determinative question when evaluating a piece is always: Would I display this in my home? My answer, with respect to the paintings above, is definitely not. Indeed, I wouldn’t hang any of these in a motel room.

There is, however, one painting in the exhibit–really it’s an installation–that I do sort of like:

Installation by Sean Landers
Epilogue 1 (2011), Sean Landers

To me this does say something about singlehanded ocean sailing, though I’m still not sure I’d want to live with it.

Here’s yet another question I ask myself: Has Landers ever actually done any singlehanded ocean sailing himself? Judging from the way the binnacle in the painting up top is facing in entirely the wrong direction, and from its title (Force Ten Stalwart), I’m guessing no, though I may be wrong. If he is a sailor, I do have to wonder who exactly his role models are.

Painting by Sean Landers
Old Gilligan (2004), Sean Landers

The exhibit at the Petzel Gallery is up until June 25. I urge you to check it out if you’re in the neighborhood and let me know what it looks like live and in person. Sometimes that makes a big difference.

And In a Totally Unrelated Development: The proverbial drunken sailor hails the authorities to report that his beloved wife has fallen overboard. Authorities respond and determine… she was never onboard in the first place. True story. From Sweden. Read it here.


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4 Responses
  1. I am very glad that I have checked your blog today, after long break – tomorrow I will be in Manhattan and will check Sean Landers exhibit for sure… Thanks, very interesting reading and I think that even after seeing with my very own eyes I will still agree with you on the topic.

  2. Charlie Doane

    Hey Voytec! Thanks for coming back. I’ll be very curious to know what your impression of the paintings is after you see them in person. cheers! charlie

  3. Hey Charlie, Here is my photographic commentary – “Synchronicity Of The Clowns – Around The World Alone (Almost) ” – I think that I may write something as well… The combination of your article, my web research and playing in the gallery for over an hour brings my own private answer – Yes, it is fine art… more later.

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